Today, we know Oksana Masters as the powerhouse Paralympic gold medalist for the United States, but her story began over three decades ago in another country.
Photo credit: Team Toyota Instagram
Before being adopted at the age of eight, Masters was born in Ukraine in 1989 with a condition called tibial hemimelia, after being exposed to the radiation from the 1986 Chernobyl power plant disaster. Masters was eventually adopted from Ukraine by her mother Gay Masters and found her way to sports after getting her legs amputated above the knee — her left knee at age nine and her right knee at 14.
Masters went on to make a name for herself as a multi-sport para-athlete, competing and medaling in both summer and winter Olympics. Right as the 2022 Beijing Winter Paralympic Games were starting in late February however, Russia launched an invasion in Ukraine.
“One of my favorite parts of competing at the Paralympic Games is I’m always side-by-side with these two flags,” Masters said in an Instagram post. “My heart and soul is Ukrainian and American. But, tonight my heart is breaking for my country of birth that was my home for eight years. It is breaking for the people of Ukraine.”
Masters went on to make history at the Beijing Games six months after her sensational performance in the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. Not only did she time trial and road race in the cycling event, Masters also became the most decorated winter Paralympian in the history of its games as she won three gold and four silver medals in multiple cross-country skiing and biathlon events.
While the U.S. came in fourth overall in total medal count with 20, Ukraine came in second with one of its best performances in Paralympic history, tallying 29 medals in total. Amid an invasion from an aggressive national power, the Ukrainian athletes' perseverance and dedication to the games with all of that looming overhead is nothing short of a miraculous feat.
Photo credit: Oksana Masters Instagram
“What I think the Paralympics did for Ukrainians, and for everyone watching, was [people] got to see the powerhouse [that] Ukraine is,” Masters said. “I am so excited the world got to see the strength and resilience of those athletes [who were] competing under the circumstances that they were [in] entering the games. I am really, really close with a lot of the [Ukrainian] athletes, a lot of the skiers. A lot of athletes were in the middle of the games trying to organize ways to get their family to the West and to safety.”
With the world watching the news on one channel, and the Paralympics on another, it seemed difficult to understand the power that sports had in unifying people, and more importantly the world when times got tough.
“I think sports truly has the ability and power to heal and bring people and countries and backgrounds and diversity to the table,” Masters said.
As she continues to train and prepare for the next competition, Masters knows that she is competing for something bigger — for the place she is from, the place she represents on a national stage, and most importantly, for peace.
Note: Masters has partnered with the Hartford group and its support of adaptive sports. The Hartford is known for its empowerment of para-athletes by making adaptive equipment more available and has been a sponsor of para-athletes for almost 30 years. In 2019, The Hartford expanded its network to para-athlete youth and adults, and has donated more than 3,000 pieces of adaptive sports equipment since then.